Together We Are Making a Poem in Honor of Life – a response from the circle
About midway through Dean Poynor’s new play Together We Are Making a Poem in Honor of Life, being performed in immersive fashion in the Cafeteria at P.S. 142 through June 28th, a character named Rebecca (played with gusto by Allison Layman) cries out “I can’t remember him without you!” The ‘him’ in question is her son, who was killed along with twenty-five others in a school shooting. The ‘you’ is both her husband, Brian (rendered with clarity by Michael Dempsey), who is having a pretty hard time with this whole talking-it-out-as-therapy idea, and us – the audience. We’re seated in a circle along with the two actors, who actively move from chair to chair, sometimes alighting right next to an audience member for a time before moving on. We are the fixed presence of others in the room and while we’re not asked to speak or actively participate, we are clearly cast as the other parents of children lost in the play’s inciting catastrophic event. They (we) gather here to remember, to make an attempt at healing.
This idea of public grief & forced remembering is difficult for Brian, who isn’t interested in talking about this in front of a bunch of strangers. Honestly, it’s hard for me too. I often find myself ill at ease when confronted by a person who is struggling with immense loss, particularly one with whom I share no history. My empathy for this person must then be activated only by their circumstance – someone has died who mattered a great deal to them. My uncomfortability in these situations stems from my inability to know what to say or how to say it. I dislike stating a generalization (“I’m so sorry for your loss,” for example) and, to some extent, distrust this other person’s desire for me to even share in their emotional state. My personal experiences with grief and loss have been intensely private – I haven’t wanted anyone else in my circle. I desire no witnesses. I am the dog who escapes into the woods to heal, emerging months later and only a little bit changed.
So here I am, in this circle, bearing witness. I knew beforehand what I was getting myself into. I had done my homework, read the press release. I told myself, this (grief) is a thing that theater can do well and you must be considerate of its power to function in this way. Way back in the days of the Greeks, entire communities gathered to witness Medea kill her babies, and her response was equally cathartic and instructional: Here is a response available to you should your husband decide to shack up with someone else (killing your and his children), and here is the likely outcome of said action (banishment). In theater, the tragic allows us to practice feeling in a relatively safe and controlled environment. What would I feel? What would I do?
And yet, this power of catharsis – the automatically heightened stakes theatrically gained through tragic circumstance – lends itself to manipulation, to easy shortcuts. You’re a writer and need us to automatically care about a certain character? Give them a dead spouse – or better yet, a kid with cancer. It would appear that it’s possible even to support eleven seasons of a serialized television series (or so I am told) via this manipulation, applied over and over again in increasingly unsustainable ways, and yet we still tune in. So, I guess, another question for me as I sat in the circle at this play, was – will I be able to care?
The short answer is yes, I did care. I was compelled, in particular, by the specific and grounded investigation of Brian and Rebecca’s eroding relationship over the course of the play, which seems to span several months or maybe even years (sound cues and lighting changes allow for jumps forward and sideways, and indicate the sensation that some time has passed). Brian loses a job, and becomes increasingly detached. Rebecca requires him at points to embody the character of their dead son at later points of his cut-short life (such as, what his prom would have be like), which Brian is willing to do for her – the effect of his enactment starts out as sentimental and ends in a more disturbing and creepy place. Giving voices to the dead can be dangerous.
There are also moments that feel overly theatrical and occasionally overwrought, pushing me towards the edges of my circle of empathy for Brian & Rebecca, testing me maybe – I suppose my discomfort in these moments is also valid, the feeling of frustration, of wanting this person to keep their voice down – don’t drown me in your experience, just let me look from a distance, not so close up please. But these moments flare up and pass by, and ultimately we leave the circle a little heavier in knowledge but just maybe a bit lighter of soul. It’s valuable to remember, even if we’re only practicing for now.